NC is competing for 18 large projects, says the head of the economy

Christopher Chung, CEO of the North Carolina Partnership for Economic Development, pictured on Nov. 17, 2022, in Raleigh, N.C. As CEO, he spearheads a public-private partnership that attracts new businesses to the state and encourages existing businesses to expand here

Christopher Chung, CEO of the North Carolina Partnership for Economic Development, pictured on Nov. 17, 2022, in Raleigh, N.C. As CEO, he spearheads a public-private partnership that attracts new businesses to the state and encourages existing businesses to expand here

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Inflation remains a threat. Talk of recession is ubiquitous. The labor shortage is not abating. Economists expressed plenty of gloom at the 2023 Economic Outlook Forum, held at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Durham on Friday.

But amid this caution, one leading voice said North Carolina is positioned to hire companies at an unprecedented rate in the new year.

“By 2023, the trend remains consistent with what we’ve seen over the past 18 months,” said Christopher Chung, head of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC), a public-private group that works to, among other goals, attract new businesses to the state. “We continue to see a large number of what we would call mega-projects.”

Chung said North Carolina is in the running for 18 major projects, which he defined as projects that promise to create at least 1,000 jobs and invest at least $1 billion.

“The number of large projects of that size has never historically been at that level,” he said. “We could see a few of those in a given year. I have been doing this business for 26 years. Until the last three or four years, it was pretty unprecedented to compete for more than just a few of those mega-projects at any given time.”

The EDPNC website lists five available megasites in the state, each offering more than 1,000 acres.

Over the past two years, North Carolina has been on the rise in terms of attracting new companies: Vinfast, Boom Supersonic, Apple and Toyota among dozens of smaller projects. This week, industry publication Business Facilities named North Carolina its “2022 State of the Year,” adding another accolade to a state ranked by CNBC as the best for business.

On Friday, Chung credited the cooperation of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-controlled state Legislature for posting major job postings, a line that drew applause from the roughly 950-person forum audience.

And Chung suggested this winning streak could continue.

“At the very least, we have an opportunity to continue to attract these transformative job-creating investments that can really change the trajectory of any region of North Carolina that is fortunate enough to realize these projects,” he said.

Why there is still a labor shortage in NC

But will there be enough people to fill those future jobs?

During the forum, hosted by the NC Chamber and the NC Chamber and the North Carolina Bankers Association, the ongoing labor shortage facing the state and the nation was discussed.

“Every company I talk to is short on talent,” said Tom Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, which covers North Carolina. “Companies considering relocation ask themselves, ‘Where will I find talent?'”

Barkin noted that North Carolina is one of only a handful of states — including South Carolina, Florida and Texas — that has a growing labor force. This growth, coupled with North Carolina’s network of universities and 58 community colleges, “is the foundation for a lot of opportunity,” he said.

Chung said the labor shortage is particularly holding back the state’s tourism industry, which relies on service staff.

Laura Ullrich, Charlotte-based senior regional economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, said “Where are the workers?” is the most common question she asked.

“And the very unsatisfactory answer is that they mostly do,” she told the crowd on Friday. “People don’t like that answer, but it’s the answer.”

In November, North Carolina had 217,000 more jobs than before COVID-19, Ullrich said, including about 84,000 additional jobs in business and professional services. The only industries in North Carolina that have seen job losses since the pandemic are government and natural resources/mining (the latter of which has shed only a few hundred positions).

As the demand for labor increased, workers had the flexibility to choose more desirable roles.

“People have shifted from very frankly difficult, stressful, client-facing jobs — whether it’s working in fast food or working as a CNA (certified nursing assistant) in a nursing home or a public school teacher — to jobs where they can make as much or more money in less stressful jobs,” Ullrich told an audience of bankers and business leaders. “Some of the people who work in your call center at your bank were third grade teachers. That’s just reality.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of the Independent Journalism Scholarship Program. N&O maintains full editorial control over the work.

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Brian Gordon is an Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He writes about jobs, start-ups and all the big tech things that are transforming the Triangle.

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